FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Beyond chokeholds and Confderate statues

Monday, June 29, 2020

Beyond chokeholds and Confderate statues

Sam Smith - After we get rid of choke holds and Confederate statues we may find ourselves wondering why life still isn’t what we would like it to be. We have been raised in a society that values regulatory process, legal reform, and procedural improvements. But it is easy in such a world to forget the importance of some basic positive human traits such as cooperation, kindness, and enjoyment of others. You can’t legislate or require such things as they are the product of culture and not the law.

And so we may be left with a gap that law, analysis and procedures have failed to fill, namely how we really feel, act and think about others… and what we can do about it.

I have been aware of this throughout much of my own life thanks to such things as having five siblings who, along with my parents, taught me early that other folks don’t always see things the same way as I do. As time went on I gained four nephews and nieces from Puerto Rico,  three from Scotland and would live comfortably for five decades in a Washington that was then a majority black city.

I was also an anthropology major and so came to .understand the immense, largely unspoken, power of culture.  As a journalist I have been repeatedly reminded of how often culture doesn’t get reported without an event, action, or official attached to it. Thus, for example, most are not aware that 15% of marriages these days are of mixed ethnicity.  Or that race is a cultural rather than a scientific thing. Or that institutions like churches and schools no longer have the moral significance they once had.

We do not need to turn our backs on law and procedures but we need to start talking and thinking more about ways we can, beyond regulation, not just get along but actually enjoy each other.

A good place to start is schools. As these institutions have slipped more towards the standards of our corporatist society, moral and personal issues  - enlightened by civics and history - have drifted out of the educational agenda.  How many elementary schools, for example, introduce their students to the incredible diversity of human culture? How many help their students work with others? And if competition and corporatism are the values their elders value most, where do kids learn cooperation, mediation and how to get along with those with whom you disagree? If math and spelling can be taught at this stage, why not decency and the celebration of diversity?

Years ago, I was president of a parents association at a public school in DC, about which I later wrote:

A parents bulletin around that time reported 20% of the students to be native Spanish speakers. There were children whose families came from 34 countries and Puerto Rico and about 20% of the school was African American… The ethnic mix was rounded out by a commune of born-again Sikhs who lived nearby.

If all our governmental institutions were run by people as pragmatic, sensitive, intelligent and imaginative as the newly appointed principal, Pat Greer, we would live in a much happier country. For example, when the potentially difficult issue of religious celebration arose, Pat adopted the principle laid down by the theologian Reinhold Niehbur, who said once that you don't solve the conflict between church and state by doing away with the church. And so the assembly before the year-end vacation included a traditional American Christian segment, a latino Christian portion, a Jewish presentation and, as a climax, a kid from the Sikh commune telling the legend of the sword. Everyone had a good time and Pat and I agreed not to let the ACLU know what we were up to.

I once got a call from Pat saying that she had caught two 8th graders using pot. She explained that she had called the 2nd Police District and asked them to send over an officer but that he was to do nothing but scare the hell out of the kids and then leave. Sounds good to me, I said, but of course those were the 1970s when we still naively thought teachers and principals knew more about educating kids than cops, judges, and the President.

Twenty years later, in a speech to a global cultural diversity conference in Australia, Pat Greer, who is black, explained her approach:

"John Eaton School is child-centered. That means that we value and build on the strengths that each and every child brings to our school and to our classrooms. That is especially important to us in our multicultural environment. Our learning environment builds on the heritage and background of all of our children. The result is that our students are eager, curious students, students who are focused on learning and are responsible for their own learning.”

“At another DC public school a teacher had asked the question, ‘What do people need to get along?’ A student had written, ‘cooperation’ and the teacher had crossed it out and written, ‘rules.’ In a few decades, the whole nation would try to run education that way, with lots of tests to make sure the instructions were being obeyed. But it didn't work because it lacked the combination that on most days had made John Eaton work: competence, to be sure, but - just as important - cooperation, enthusiasm, and love.

“Our parents, teachers and staff are caring, talented, resourceful and positive role models for our students. And I am a highly visible school principal. I know each student by name and I greet them each morning when they arrive at school, and again when they go home at the end of the day. I talk to my students; I visit their classrooms; and I sometimes work with them in their classrooms. And I welcome them into my office when they want to talk to me. ..”

The curriculum at the school was affected by two impressive biases. One was a prejudice towards writing. The kids were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches, advertisements. The school clearly understood the shortest route to good writing: do it. The other emphasis was the arts, particularly drama and music, activities that require students to work well with each other.  With excellent teachers and adequate time, the kids threw themselves into their projects as though Broadway rather than high school was the next step. The encouragement came right from the top - not only from the principal but from Mr. Urqhart, her administrative assistant, who - dressed in his most colorful suit - would sing a single applause-stirring number in his mellow bass voice in each of the big shows - the only adult permitted to thus intrude.

I became conscious of how serious the dramatic side of Eaton was one day as I was taking a group of 4th graders home from an event. One kid stepped carelessly into the street and a companion called her back, saying, "Be careful, you could ruin your whole life that way.' Another added, "yeah, or even your career." Once safely in the car, there commenced the sort of surreal debate that only the young can withstand. The topic (clearly involving the stage rather than the lesser trades) was: what is more important - your life or your career?

There are plenty of police departments that could use someone like Pat Greer. While banning chokeholds is a start, we need to think about ways to reintegrate police into our communities instead of having them consider the neighborhood as a threat. Getting them out of their cars and back onto the streets is one way. Creating neighborhood commissions such as those in DC where the police can discuss problems with real citizens. Adding lawyers and  social workers to each police station not just to train officers but to work with them over the problems they run into would also help.

All are partial solutions beyond the law and procedures but part of the complex and universal world of decency and cooperation. We can not just regulate ourselves out of this mess, we must learn how to share our world with others and enjoy what we discover. And if kids can learn how to do it,  it’s possible we adults can as well.